, Volume 51, Issue 2, pp 392-413
Date: 22 Nov 2012

Ecological Engineering Practices for the Reduction of Excess Nitrogen in Human-Influenced Landscapes: A Guide for Watershed Managers

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Abstract

Excess nitrogen (N) in freshwater systems, estuaries, and coastal areas has well-documented deleterious effects on ecosystems. Ecological engineering practices (EEPs) may be effective at decreasing nonpoint source N leaching to surface and groundwater. However, few studies have synthesized current knowledge about the functioning principles, performance, and cost of common EEPs used to mitigate N pollution at the watershed scale. Our review describes seven EEPs known to decrease N to help watershed managers select the most effective techniques from among the following approaches: advanced-treatment septic systems, low-impact development (LID) structures, permeable reactive barriers, treatment wetlands, riparian buffers, artificial lakes and reservoirs, and stream restoration. Our results show a broad range of N-removal effectiveness but suggest that all techniques could be optimized for N removal by promoting and sustaining conditions conducive to biological transformations (e.g., denitrification). Generally, N-removal efficiency is particularly affected by hydraulic residence time, organic carbon availability, and establishment of anaerobic conditions. There remains a critical need for systematic empirical studies documenting N-removal efficiency among EEPs and potential environmental and economic tradeoffs associated with the widespread use of these techniques. Under current trajectories of N inputs, land use, and climate change, ecological engineering alone may be insufficient to manage N in many watersheds, suggesting that N-pollution source prevention remains a critical need. Improved understanding of N-removal effectiveness and modeling efforts will be critical in building decision support tools to help guide the selection and application of best EEPs for N management.